Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Greatest Game You Never Saw, or Got to Read About

National powerhouse house Texas beat Boston College 3-2 last night in the NCAA baseball tournament. The game went a little long-25 innings to be exact.

The game set a variety of NCAA records, and was, obviously, historic. There was the little matter of Texas' closer pitching 11 (!!!) innings of no-hit relief, or BC allowing 20 hits and only 3 runs without turning a double play. I can't imagine a more amazing win or horrible loss. I'm sorry to have missed it. I wonder if the Globe and Herald are, too.

Neither Boston newspaper saw fit to send a reporter to cover BC's first NCAA appearance in many years. BC is playing at Austin, Texas, which is far away from here. Times are tough, college sports have low priority, and college baseball lowest of all. It was a perfectly justifiable managerial decision by two excellent and hard-pressed sports editors.

Until last night, when all of a sudden it wasn't. That's the damnable thing about news, you can't ever be certain when it's going to break out. We now have a local sports team involved in a game about as chock-full of the human drama of athletic competition as can be imagined, and neither local newspaper had a reporter on hand to capture the BC side of things. Austin's Associated Press reporter is our city's information source of record for the unbelievable events of last night.

This is how newspapers are committing suicide through self-suffocation. Every sensible cutback kills. My account of events was compiled from a couple of Internet message boards for sports fans who followed the game on the NCAA Web site. I have the facts, but not the human beings behind the facts.

BC may not get home for another day or two. They play Army today at noon, CDT. That's going to be some game, too, one way or the other. I'd like to see the Eagle kids out there today, or failing that, I'd like to read about it from the point of view of a familiar byline. No can do. I'll have to wait until BC is back at the Heights, when I'm sure both papers will send reporters over to debrief the team on the astonishing game.

Swell. Journalism is supposed to be the first draft of history. When it becomes the second or third draft, it's a product of questionable utility. If the Globe and Herald can't be the journal of record for local sports teams in national championship competition, what exactly is their utility?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cause of Death for Both Strunk and White Listed as "Verbs"

The subheadline in today's Globe read, in part, "Sox Vault into First."

Leaving aside the questionable notion that a baseball team moving from one-half game out of first to one-half game into first on Memorial Day represents news of any kind, let's contemplate the verb "vault." It is a classic example of the pure newspaper word, one used exclusively in print and never, ever, in ordinary speech as spoken by any American you could name.

Ever use "vault" as a verb? I'm betting no. I have, but only because I covered pole vaulting at a couple of Olympic Games. In real life, "vault" is a noun, meaning the place banks kept money back when they had any.

"Mull" is another newspaper word. It is used to indicate some individual or organization in the process of making a decision. Presidents mull a lot, and so do football coaches before roster cutdown day. Outside newspaper land, the only thing that ever gets mulled is cider.

Here's my favorite, all-time pet peeve newspaper word, one so insidious it actually has slipped into common usage. It's "aging," as in "aging veteran" or "aging infrastructure." It means, of course, "considered to be too old for its purpose." But "aging" should not be an adjective, damn it, because it's meaningless. Aging is a verb and it is an ongoing process for EVERYTHING. Were I a sports editor, God forbid, I would strike "aging" from every article with the instruction "Go out and find me a player who isn't aging, because THAT'S news!"

Sometimes, like aging, newspaper words are adjectives. "Controversial," for example, which as I have posted before, means the exact opposite of its dictionary definition. "Controversial" in the paper means not "subject of fierce debate" but "universally loathed." But mostly, newspaper words are verbs, short, snappy active verbs. A lot of them mean "disagree" or "criticize." Slam, rip, blast, etc.

Read the story underneath the headline and the lede and it's likely to reveal the person doing the slamming, ripping, etc. said something to the effect of, "I believe I could help the team if I played more," or "I am uncertain as to how this worthy public project can be funded." The newspaper verb makes more of the facts than they are, which is without question the most common sin in journalism. So much of my former trade consists of attempting to convince people what you're telling them is important. The desperate fear that no one is paying attention is the reporter's sleepless 3 a.m. companion.

Newspaper verbs most often appear in headlines, which are a strange form of the English language, especially at a tabloid like the Herald. They really are "all the news that fits" being limited by available space, a decision involving something called "picas." I never learned what they are, but they're important.

A good tab headline is urban concrete poetry-a bad one is pure gibberish. They're not easy to write, and every story has to have one. Deadline and creative pressure leads to the frequent use of newspaper verbs, and their subsequent distortion of reality.

This should be no big deal. Newspaper readers ought to know that newspaper stories are, in spirit, written in crayon with one's teeth, with much of the nuance of human existence sacrificed to make a few big points as succinctly as possible. I wouldn't even bring up newspaper words except for one odd fact.

In my experience, the only thing 99 percent of readers remember about a story the next day is the headline and maybe the first sentence. Newspaper words leave scars on the public consciousness.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Business Model That Works-Let's Ignore It!!

David Carr, the very good mass media reporter for the "New York Times," had a piece in this morning's "News of the Week in Review" section on the re-design of "Newsweek" supervised by that periodical's editor Jon Meacham. As has become customary for Big Media reporters, Carr said the problem with the re-design is that it doesn't account for the Internet, which has made the newsweekly obsolete, along with the newspaper, and for all I know, the filling station.

Big Media look out for each other. Carr felt obliged to write his real message between the lines of his article. Any alert or even one-third alert reader got Carr's subtext, namely, "this product is Christ-awful and Meacham is the champion ass of journalism." Which is pretty much true, but beside my point here. What got me was how Carr is an honest enough reporter to acknowledge the fact that blows a gaping hole in his thesis, but not imaginative enough to wonder about what the fact might mean.

U.S. weekly news magazines have been irrelevant since the resignation of Richard Nixon. There was nothing worth your time in the old Newsweek, and there's nothing worth your time in the new one. At my day job, where we summarize periodical articles for database creation "Time" and "Newsweek" are left to the newbies. They are simplistic enough to serve as good training for writing and editing in a very artificial format that takes time to learn. Also, nobody else wants to read them.

However, as Carr admitted, there is a periodical which is a huge exception to the decline of print journalism as a business enterprise. It's the "Economist." Circulation-way up. Advertising-up more than that. Reader demographics-to die and kill for. The Internet isn't slowing it down one bit. Why might that be?

Carr said it was because the "Economist" "had the cache of being from elsewhere," i.e. Americans are suckers for an upper-class British accent. Snobbery seems an unlikely antidote to the awesome power of cyberspace. Doesn't information want to be free even if twitlike in nature?

I'd suggest a simpler explanation for the success of the "Economist." It's a good magazine. It's a product created by intelligent, curious adult for their peers. There's a lot in it to read, and most of it is stuff you could never learn from American mass media, which from the Times on down operates on the idea that its readers/listeners/viewers have a good deal of money, but are otherwise shallow, uninformed and none too bright.

In short, as a product, the Economist succeeds on the quaint grounds of being worth the money you pay for it. This is the exact opposite of the business plan being offered by U.S. print media, which is engaged in destroying its still-valuable brand names (Globe, Times, Newsweek) by offering consumers less and less and hoping they don't notice until someone figures out how to make the Internet pay.

It is the genius of capitalism that somebody will eventually figure out how large news-gathering organizations can be good businesses in the online world. I have to believe that "delivering the news" will be a large part of that scheme. Jon Meacham and Newsweek disagree.

Which is why people read "Economist" on long flights.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Four Seasons, by Vivaldi and Scott Van Pelt

Spring begins at the starting line of the Boston Marathon. When I was a kid growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, spring began on Opening Day, but I've shoveled my driveway on a few too many postponed Fenway openers to believe that anymore.

Summer begins tomorrow. It begins, as it always has, and I hope always will, when some superannuated Midwestern poobah declares "Gentleman (and Ladies now, of course), start your engines" at the Indianapolis 500.

Fall begins the second after match point of the men's singles final of the U.S. Open. I know that for many folks, the kickoff of their home team's NFL season opener is the start of fall, but I prefer the way the Open ends in twilight, reminding us of what lies ahead in the next two seasons.

Winter begins when the clock runs out on the last of the Thanksgiving Day morning high school football games. If you went to prep school, and NEVER got over it, make that when the clock runs out on the Harvard-Yale game.

There you are, the eternal wheel of the sports-time continuum. Except for hockey and basketball seasons. They're just eternal.

Recommended Summer Reading

Stop what you're doing this morning, pick up or click on today's "New York Times" and read John Branch's story on the company that makes the Zamboni machines.

It's the Zamboni company, there's a Zamboni family, and I won't give away the punchline of Branch's story, which is right in its dateline. It is everything a non life-and-death newspaper story ought to be. A sports story, a business story, a good story, period.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Grammar Confuses Commentators

A modest suggestion here. When seeking a modifying verb to use with the sentence subject "Michael Vick" and the sentence object "play football?" use these words in the following order.

1. Should

2. Can

3, 287,298, 001. Where will

Get a grip, football observers! Vick's still under house arrest. He's spent two years in a federal joint. No one has even asked him if he WANTS to play football in 2009. I know he doesn't have many other options, economically speaking, but he may wish a little quiet time on the outside. That, at least, would show he's learned something in prison.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The View From the Bullpen Can Be A Good One

Manny Ramirez met his Dodger teammates in Miami last Friday for the first time since his 50-game suspension for failing a drug test. According to manager Joe Torre, Ramirez was nervous and extremely apologetic during the encounter, as well he might have been.

How did his teammates feel? Well, consider the following remark by Dodger reliever Will Ohman.

"For a guy entering his second trimester," Ohman said, "Manny looked great. He's barely showing."

Thank you, Will Ohman, for upholding one of the finest traditions of our national pastime-sarcasm and ridicule. There's nothing so consequential that ballplayers can't turn to a joke at someone else's expense. That's why "Ball Four" was such a great read.

The rest of us, especially those who have a taste for ponderous, pretentious and tendentious moralizing on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, ought to take a moment to walk in Ohman's cleats. There is no group of human beings more directly and adversely affected by Ramirez's suspension than the rest of the Dodgers. It threatens their season, and hence, their finances, in the most immediate and dire way.

And yet, the reaction of at least one Dodger was that the punishment to fit Manny's crime was insult humor-pretty funny insult humor, too. The absurd nature of the drug detected in Ramirez's system was too marvelous an opportunity for some classic baseball jive to be missed.

If the victims are joking, the bystanders might want to get off their high horses. It reminds me of a very insightful comment said to be made (I only got it second-hand) by Nick Cafardo of the Globe.

Nick, having covered both the Pats and the Red Sox, summarized the difference between the two beats as a matter of emphasis. To paraphrase, he said that in pro football, the players and coaches treated their jobs as a matter of life and death, while the writers thought of themselves less seriously. In baseball, the players and coaches went about their business having a great time, while the writers treated every day as the opening shots of World War III.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Tied and Equal Are Not the Same Words

Whenever life gets me down this spring, I remind myself "hey, at least you're not a Lakers fan." Cheers me right up.

Bostonians may not believe this, but southern California is full of nice, normal, somewhat raucous Laker fans. They're not all Hollywood poseurs. And even the poseurs have to be embarrassed by the team they're rooting for in the 2009 NBA playoffs. Real fans must be hanging at the corner of Humilation and Shame, just off Sepulveda. One only hopes John Wooden hasn't watched any of the games.

There is no other way to put this. The Lakers disgust me. Not the franchise, which is an honored one. This team of guys, out there on the court, is insulting the very notion of professional sports, indeed, of professionalism itself. With the exception of vapid, self-obssessed, but honest craftsman Kobe Bryant, they cannot be depended on to give a full day's work for a day's pay.

As everyone knows, the Lakers were blown out by the Rockets in Game Four of their playoff series in Houston, the first game the Rockets played without Yao Ming, kind of an important player for them. Embarrassing for LA, yes, but these things happen. More often than not, in the FIRST game after a star is lost to an injury, teams in any sport react by raising their level of play to previously unreached heights. It's one reason NFL bettors who rely on the injury report go broke more quickly than their peers.

By the third game after an injury, that effect wears off. And yet, the Lakers were blown out as thoroughly in Game Six as in Game Four, and in the same manner. They showed up late and got massacred early. Challenged, they folded, secure in the knowledge they have a Game Seven at home.

As we saw in the 2008 Finals, the Lakers do not take adversity well. They don't take it at all. Without weighing their merits as individuals, we can safely say that as a team, the Lakers merit the worst epithet sports has on tap. They are quitters. I can only imagine what Lakers past like Jerry West, Kareem, and Magic think when they see these imposters wearing purple and gold. Ordinarily old-time players enjoy proof current players don't measure up to them. In this case, the legends must want their retired number banners reversed so they face the walls of the Staples Center.

Being a fan is an emotional commitment, and like any such commitment, one likes to feel that the object of one's affection is worth the price of one's heart. Of the four teams that will play Game Sevens tomorrow, three sets of their fans don't have that problem.

Should they lose, Magic fans will be disappointed but ought to accept that their team had its chances, and missed 'em, so justice was done. Should they lose, fans of the Celtics will be disappointed, but ought to take solace in the resilience, poise, and skill the team showed in coping with the loss of Kevin Garnett. Should THEY lose, fans of the Rockets should be just about as proud and happy to have rooted for their heroes as they will be if they win.

Laker fans have one option. It's victory or nothing. And even in victory, this series has to taste like ashes soaked in month-old Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The Lakers could (but won't) go on to win the NBA championship. That would be a disservice to the idea of karma, but it could lead to a first of sorts. The victory parade could feature adoring crowds throwing rotten fruit at Phil Jackson.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Word "Rest" is in R. I. P. for a Reason

By all accounts, Dom DiMaggio was a fine man, and his record as a ballplayer speaks for itself. If Kevin Cullen of the Globe wanted to write a column commemorating DiMaggio's death, it would have been entirely appropriate.

If Cullen wanted to write a column ripping Manny Ramirez several new ones for failing a drug test, I surely woudn't have objected. I wouldn't have read it, because Cullen wouldn't exactly have been breaking new ground, and frankly, the topic seems to fit a little too well with the "middle aged Irish male with lots of grievances" slot that some Globe metro columnist has held since I first moved here in 1974. But it's a topic in the news, so it's fair game.

To try to do both, as Cullen did today, REALLY bothers me. It's lazy, simple-minded writing, but as I can testify from personal experience, every columnist falls into that trap once in a while. Wisdom on demand can be a tough racket. That's not my problem with Cullen. What he did was wrong because it disrespected DiMaggio. He took the last occasion in which the general public is likely to consider the life and times of an accomplished human being and used it to make cheap debating points. For shame.

The mid 20th century British diplomat Duff Cooper said it best. "A man's funeral is his last appearance. He ought to have the stage to himself."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

My Former Trade Continues Its Sylvia Plath Impersonation

There are a great many things which could be said about Manny Ramirez's suspension for failing a drug test. Serious things, humorous things, even, dare I say it, insightful things. The kind of things that might inspire a consumer to feel that paying money to read them was a good investment of money and time.

"Neener, neener" and "poor fielding and poor baserunning are the mark of poor character," are not two of those things. They are, however, the respective themes of Dan Shaughnessy's column in today's Globe and a piece by baseball writer Jack Curry in the New York Times. The subtext of these two works, namely, that many baseball writers love the game but hate the people who play it for unfortunate psychological reasons we need not go into here, shrieks its message over the top of the two men's prose.

As everyone knows, the survival of the Globe as a business enterprise is hanging by a thread, and the Times is hanging by about four threads. In those circumstances, bylined reporters and columnists have two options. One, get the hell out ASAP for less enjoyable but more stable work. Two, do the very best you can. Drive yourself to help demonstrate WHY your organization's product is a valuable item its customers would miss mightily if it went away.

Business as usual doesn't cut it. Self-importance self-righteousness is to be avoided, except it wasn't. If I worked for either of those two papers (never did, never will, will never regret it), there are a couple of fellow employees who'd be on my Mother's Day shit list.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Summer Lame

What Roy Campanella meant to say was "baseball is a man's game, but you got to have a lot of little boy in you to commentate on it."

Manny Ramirez's 50 game suspension for failing a drug test was bad news for him and the Dodgers. Whether on foolish purpose or by even more foolish inadvertence, Ramirez hurt a great many people who depend on him. Manny is an inherently likeable person, charming in his way. He has coupled that quality with the fact he is one of history's great hitters to get away with murder his entire adult life. Now he's in a spot where charm and his bat can't help. Maybe that'll be good for him.

Ramirez's suspension also cost him $7.6 million and a lot of national ridicule. This strikes me as a reasonable punishment for his transgression. But of course, I'm not a Serious Baseball Person. I'm no Bob Costas, Doris Goodwin, or Ken Burns. To me, baseball is a great game that's given me a lifetime of splendid entertainment, mixed in with the occasional life-scarring fan trauma (1964 Phillies). And at bottom, even the traumas are part of the fun. Who wants to be part of a non-historic collapse?

The key words in the second-to-last sentence of the above paragraph were "game" and "entertainment." They are words you never hear from the SBPs. To them, baseball has some core importance to their own and our country's place in the cosmos which defies rational, indeed, any explanation. And of course, the news that Manny flunked a drug test has caused them to note that baseball has suffered a loss of innocence.

What, again? Between John McGraw, Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Walter O'Malley, free agency, Barry Bonds, and finding out what Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were really like, baseball has lost its innocence more often than Jenna Jameson. You'd think the SBPs would finally realize baseball's never had innocence to lose. It's always been a great sport and ruthless big business in equal measure. Sad but true, people cheat at sports. People REALLY cheat at big business, if they can get away with it. There is a logical historical progression from Cobb's sharpened spikes to Bonds' enormous head.

But for the SBPs, the steroid era is the worst thing that ever happened. The other night on TV, Keith Olbermann, getting to be a more irritating self-righteous scold at warp factor 18, asked Richard Justice of the "Houston Chronicle" if something couldn't be done about ALL the records of baseball since 1990, since tainted players make for tainted results.

Justice, a mere scribe, not a philosopher-king, was somewhat taken aback. He gently explained that erasing 20 years of baseball history might be somewhat difficult. Olbermann's idea was so bat-brained, I just know it will soon become part of the general baseball conversation.

Performance-enhancing drugs are not good for baseball, and I'm not saying that on the bushwa "think of the children" platform. We have the evidence that PEDs are profoundly anti-competitive. The better a player is, the more benefit he gets from taking the drugs. For a sport that's based on extremely narrow margins between failure and success, as is proved by every routine infield groundout, that's just ruinous. It was accepted managerial wisdom in the early 2000s that Bonds was too good to pitch to. Intentional walks are no one's idea of entertainment, let alone competition.

So with its usual painfully creaky response to current events, baseball now has a drug testing program. How well it works is unknown, but it's not a total failure. It just popped Manny. Seems to me the proper reaction to that event would be "Well, that's a shame, and I'm sorry to hear it, but the system is working. That's progess."

As far as can be told, however, reactions generally fall into two camps. The SBPs who get the vapors, and the self-styled wise guys who say Ramirez just proves every player's still doing PEDs. Both miss the point. Problems don't vanish overnight in any endeavor. And the baseline idea of a drug-testing regimen isn't to detect the guilty, it's to afford the non-users the presumption of innocence, so the game can go on more or less normally.

The NFL's drug testing program catches players all the time. It doesn't stir up the same fuss because it's become institutionalized, and fans accept the basic principle that one's man's crime does not indict his neighbors (there are other reasons, of course, most stemming from the fact playing football is very bad for your body).

The baseball wise guys make me tired. The Field of Dreams crowd makes me weary beyond measure. If, dear reader, you should be trapped next to one of either type at the ballpark, and the subject of steroids comes up, there's only one thing to say in self-defense.

"Here's a twenty. Why don't you go get us a couple of dogs and some peanuts."

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Dog Ate My Urinanalysis

My son in public relations explained to me that damage control involves putting unfortunate events in the best possible light. Better he should have told Manny Ramirez.

Ramirez was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance, allegedly a female hormone that can be used as a masking agent for anabolic steroids. Taking banned substances when he KNOWS he'll be tested means a ballplayer is, among other things, a prize chump.

That's bad. But what, after all, does it really mean? If they threw the chumps out of the Hall of Fame, Cooperstown would finally be as exclusive a club as Bob Feller and Joe Morgan always said it should be.

Ramirez's explanation of extenuating circumstances, however, makes his brainpower or lack of same look the least of his problems. According to Manny, he was prescribed the banned substance by a physician whom he was consulting on a "personal medical issue."

The hormone in question does have a legitimate medical use. It's prescribed for male sexual dysfunction.

So, in Manny's best case scenario of this affair, he's being treated for sexual dysfunction by a physician who is a prize chump. I'd say a doctor too clueless to ask his multimillionaire patient if this drug is on the banned list before he writes the prescription qualifies for chumpdom squared.

Given my druthers between the two alternatives, "I got caught cheating because I was really, really stupid, and "I'm being treated for secual dysfunction by a doctor who's an idiot," I know which I'd choose. Public opinion be damned.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

No Open Fires! Ommmm No Kegs! Ommmm

The Dalai Lama is appearing (what is the right verb here, anyway?) at Gillette Stadium this weekend. This brings to mind two questions.

1. Will Bill Belichick come out of his office to check it out? I can testify that Raymond Berry, when he was Pats' coach, was completely oblivious to the Rolling Stones shooting parts of a rock video on the giant stage at the old Foxboro Stadium 100 very loud yards from HIS office. But my guess is that Belichick's thoroughness will cause him to at least take a peek. A coach never knows when spiritual enlightenment will come in handy, especially for games within the division.

2. Far more important. What will tailgaters bring to this event? Will the haze and stench of burnt meat smoke that hangs over Patriots games be replaced the haze and stench of burnt tofu? And if so, will it actually smell worse?

Again, I'm betting yes. But I sincerely hope that one Foxboro tradition is not upheld when the Dalai hits the stage. It'd be very embarrassing for our region if there were arrests for disorderly conduct.


Due to social circumstances, we're hosting a dinner party at my address this evening-Game 7 between the Celtics and Bulls or no Game 7.

Ordinarily, this blogger would be in severe psychic distress about this scheduling conflict. Just as ordinarily, he would attempt to middle the problem by keeping half his mind on his guests, and half on the game. There's a large art work in the TV room which allows a reflection of the set's picture to be viewed from the kitchen. The image is backwards, but that doesn't matter for basketball (Yes, I know that's nuts, but it is helpful, especially during football season, when it gets dark when you're making dinner and the reflection gives a clearer picture).

A distracted host is an offense to the laws of hospitality, however, at least, the laws as they are commonly interpreted at my house. The game-guest divide could lead to post-game stress all around.

But these are the Celtics and Bulls!! No worries!! These are the teams that have forever given the lie to the old slur that all you need to see of an NBA game is the last two minutes. The last two minutes of regulation in this series is the game's introduction. It's the equivalent of the TV program montage with the voiceover "in our last episode..." It has about as much impact on the final outcome of the contest as the National Anthem.

The first guests are slated to arrive at 6:30 and dinner will be at about 7:30. Game 7 tipoff is around 8:05. Even allowing for lengthy chat over coffee and dessert, it's likely the event will be over by 10:30 at the latest. My best guess, allowing for the extra commercials that TNT will stuff into the timeouts on such a momentous occasion, is that there will be AT LEAST 7 minutes left of the fourth quarter at that point in time.

I won't have missed a thing. And to think I blasted the Sox and Yanks for the length of their games last week.